Courage, desire and a never-say-die spirit define the U.S. women's soccer team. But in a World Cup final for the ages, the Americans fell to a Japan team with an awe-inspiring drive to win for its beleaguered homeland
This is an article from the July 25, 2011 issue
They stood on the same spot, one by one, and tried to convey the emotions and the drama of one of the most gripping World Cup finals anyone had ever witnessed. In a windowless press room beneath a concrete stadium in Frankfurt, Germany, soccer players from the U.S. and Japan took their turns answering questions: Abby Wambach, the forward whose goal had brought the Americans to the brink of World Cup glory; Hope Solo, the dynamic U.S. goalkeeper whose voice cracked as she spoke of the heartbreak of the moment; and finally, at 1:16 a.m. on Monday, Homare Sawa, the tiny playmaker who had rescued Japan from defeat with a 117th-minute dagger, the latest strike ever in a World Cup final.
After a 2--2 extra-time draw in which the U.S. had led twice and had often dominated its opponent, Japan won the Women's World Cup by taking turns from another spot, the white penalty dot 12 yards from the goal. The penalty-kick shootout is a diabolical way to decide a champion, but there is no more dramatic tiebreaker in sports, no setting more suffused with the stress that can turn the most confident of players into a pool of flop sweat. How else to explain the U.S.'s failure to convert its first three penalties one week after going 5 for 5 against Brazil? "The Americans were the ones who had already won championships, so the pressure was on them," said Sawa, the tournament's top scorer and most valuable player. "I didn't get nervous at all."
To hear the Americans, their dominant feeling was less anxiety than disbelief, a sense that the decisive moments had played out in a dreamlike slow motion, something that wasn't quite real. "I'm kind of in shock," said veteran U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd, who sent the U.S.'s second spot kick flying over the crossbar. "I had no doubt [about winning]. When we went up a goal in regulation time, I'm like, O.K., we've got 10 more minutes. I knew we'd close it out. Then we score in overtime, and I'm like, O.K., we've got five minutes left. Then they equalize again. Even when we're stepping up taking penalty kicks, we're like, We've got this." She shook her head in a daze. "Maybe it just wasn't our time."
Yet the timing was perfect for women's soccer, which reached new heights of competitiveness and captivated a global audience. At the end of U.S.-Japan, Twitter was logging 7,196 posts per second, an alltime high and a figure that dwarfed the Super Bowl. The host Germans filled the stadiums as they do for the biggest men's events, and ESPN's ratings for the final nearly doubled its previous best for a World Cup match, the men's U.S.-Algeria game from last summer. On the field there were no ugly blowouts of the kind that marred past women's tournaments, and the rise of Japan, France and Australia showed that boosting the field from 16 to 24 teams in 2015 should expand the women's game even more. Perhaps most important, this match was far more compelling than last year's dour hackfest between Spain and the Netherlands in the men's World Cup final in South Africa.
And has there ever been a more unlikely champion? Japan had never beaten the U.S. in 25 previous games and had never reached even the semifinals of a World Cup before a remarkable three-game run in the 2011 knockout round. In succession Japan eliminated two-time defending champion Germany; powerful Sweden, a 2003 finalist; and a U.S. team intent on capturing its first Cup since the memorable summer of 1999. "Tonight we're going to drink one glass of excellent German beer," said Japan coach Norio Sasaki, who was entitled to go crazy and finish the bottle if he so desired.
Bottoms-up was the perfect way to describe a final that confounded expectations. Although Japan was supposed to control possession with its refined short-passing attack, it was the U.S. that owned the ball, creating far more scoring chances and hitting the woodwork three times in the first half—lost opportunities that the Americans will regret for years. And while the physically imposing U.S. players figured to have a major advantage on set pieces, it was Japan that scored on a restart when the 5'5" Sawa stabbed Aya Miyama's low-flying corner kick into the net in the waning minutes of extra time. "When you hit it a little bit lower, that gives you a chance against the bigger Americans," Sawa would say. "That was the trick."
In truth the Americans played their best attacking game of the tournament, bossing possession until they finally broke through in the 69th minute. Megan Rapinoe, the team's most creative midfielder, lofted a 40-yard pass to substitute forward Alex Morgan, at 22 the U.S.'s youngest player. The beauty of Morgan's goal lay in its execution—her speed to reach the ball, her toughness to fight off defender Saki Kumagai and her focus to stay composed in full flight and send a leftfooted laser inside the far post. By the time Morgan slid into a celebration with her teammates, you could almost hear Madison Avenue buzzing from 4,000 miles away.
In the end, though, the U.S. was undone by its defense. What should have been a harmless sequence in the 81st minute turned into a Japanese goal when defender Rachel Buehler tried to clear a ball that then bounced off teammate Ali Krieger into the path of Miyama, who slammed it past a helpless Solo to tie the game at one. The U.S. appeared to have gotten the winner in the first extra-time period when Morgan came through again, beating her defender on the left endline and sending a gorgeous cross to Wambach, whose unstoppable 104th-minute header was her fourth goal in as many games. Would there have been any more appropriate way for the U.S. to win the World Cup than on a Wambach header?
"When you score a goal in the World Cup, it's like you're a 10-year-old kid coming down for Christmas and getting the present you wanted all year long," said Wambach, and as the last minutes ticked away it was hard not to imagine the 31-year-old veteran and 2004 Olympic gold medalist kissing her first World Cup trophy on the victory podium. Then fate turned. In the 117th minute Japan won a corner, and Miyama drove her kick hard and low onto the foot of Sawa, the regal 32-year-old playing in her fifth World Cup. "It just went by so fast," defender Christie Rampone, the U.S. captain, said of the shot. "You look back and it's in the back of the net."
Despite the gut punch, the U.S. still figured to have an edge at the start of penalty kicks, not least because its run to the final had been a testament to its enormous resilience. No single moment did more to galvanize millions of mainstream American sports fans than the miraculous U.S. comeback against Brazil in the quarterfinals. Seconds away from elimination, down to 10 players and needing a goal, the U.S. pushed forward for one desperate last gasp in stoppage time. If Dwight Clark has the Catch and Michael Jordan owns the Shot, then Wambach's last-second strike will be known as the Header, destined to become an iconic American sports highlight. Every aspect of the play unfolded with uncanny precision: Rapinoe's perfect leftfooted cross, Wambach's fearless leap and her thumping header into the net.
The U.S.'s virtuosity in the Brazil shootout—all five penalties converted, Solo's diving save—fed the Americans' confidence heading into the spot kicks against Japan. But goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori set the tone by blocking Shannon Boxx's opening penalty with a sprawling rightfooted kick save, and the U.S. unraveled from there.
It's one thing to go to your city park and fire penalties past your friend on a lazy summer day when the goal looks as big as a swimming pool. It's another to do it in front of a sold-out stadium and a global audience, with the World Cup on the line. "Going to penalties in two games in a major tournament, that's really tough," said Solo, who made a diving save on Japan. "We were money with our penalty-takers last time, and I think that's really hard to come back and do again."
When Kumagai drilled her spot kick past Solo to clinch the title, she sparked a joyous celebration that spread from the stadium in Frankfurt to wee-hours viewing parties in Tokyo. The Japanese players are called Nadeshiko after a pink flower that symbolizes Japanese womanhood, and their unexpected triumph brought a moment of soul-stirring national pride to a country still recovering from the earthquake and tsunami on March 11 that killed more than 15,000 people. Before Japan's quarterfinal upset of Germany and semifinal win over Sweden, Sasaki showed his players images of the devastation to reinforce the idea that they were playing for their nation. The pictures hit home: Left back Aya Sameshima had worked at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant while playing for the team sponsored by the plant's owner. After the plant suffered multiple meltdowns in the wake of the earthquake, the team disbanded, and Sameshima joined the Boston Breakers of the WPS, the U.S. women's league.
"With the tsunami and earthquake in Japan there are a lot of people very troubled," Sawa said after the final. "We wanted to give something to these people, if only a little." They did. At a Tokyo sports bar, 36-year-old fan Jun Hajiro was one of the many who reveled long into the night. "Though the Japanese team is physically smaller than the Americans, they had the strong mentality to win," Hajiro said amid the roaring celebration. "They played for Japan and our recovery."
Japan's victory was all the more stunning given the nation's meager soccer participation: Just 25,000 girls are registered as players in all of Japan, compared with 200,000 in California alone. The Japanese women's league is not professional, which means players must take full-time jobs and practice in the evenings. Corporate sponsorship is minimal, and the Japanese federation only began investing significant resources in the women's game five years ago. But it's quality, not quantity, that counts, and Japan has reaped the rewards of its schools' teaching technical skills to young female players. As a result, no team in the world passes the ball better than the Nadeshiko.
After raising their trophy on Sunday, the Japanese players unfurled their trademark banner—TO OUR FRIENDS AROUND THE WORLD, THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT—and politely bowed as one as the deserved applause washed over them. Only the heartless would begrudge them their World Cup title, and if we know one thing about the U.S. players, they aren't lacking heart. "I'm happy for Japan," said Lloyd, one of several U.S. team members who helped raise money to support Japanese disaster recovery.
What comes next for the U.S.? Nearly all of the players will return to the WPS and hope their newfound popularity helps the struggling six-team league. Whether that bounce comes or not, Solo, Wambach and Morgan will emerge from the World Cup with more individual star power—though not as much as a title would have brought.
On the field the U.S. may not change much between now and the 2012 Olympics. A few older players, including Boxx, 34, and Rampone, 36, will have to fight to stay in the starting lineup, while rising stars such as Morgan, Rapinoe and Lauren Cheney (a starter on Sunday who left at halftime with an ankle injury) figure to take on more prominent roles, bringing more creativity and speed to the U.S. attack. As the Americans defend their 2008 gold medal in London next summer, they'll continue to face pressure from teams such as Japan and France to show the skill and attacking verve we saw in Sunday's final.
So polite were the Japanese players in the interview area after the game that when four of them formed a bustling conga line, they almost instantly stopped, put their hands over their mouths and apologized to reporters ("Sorry! Sorry!") for making too much noise. Considering that they'd just played in one of the most dramatic finals ever staged in any sport, you couldn't help but smile. Women's soccer may be more competitive than ever, but there was still something pure about the admiration between the Americans and the Japanese after their classic match. "I have many friends on the American team, but especially Abby," said Sawa, who had been Wambach's teammate in the U.S. women's league. "It was great to play such a good match together, in a sense."
Together. It was a revealing sign of mutual respect. And maybe, on a triumphant night for women's soccer, that was exactly the point.